Sunday, February 26, 2006


Acts of conscience by health professionals: the profession is not the point

Dahlia Lithwick compares the situation of the California physicians who walked out on an execution to which they declined to be an accessory with the current debate over Wal-Mart pharmacists in Massachusetts who refused to fill prescriptions for birth control or morning-after pills ("Wal-Mart and the Death Penalty," Washington Post, 26 February 2006, page B3). Lithwick makes a case for distinguishing the rights and obligations inuring to physicians from those applicable to pharmacists. This analysis is beside the point. The primary difference, to expand on a perspective given in a letter to the editor in the Post, is like the difference between a movie multiplex that doesn't show R or NC-17 rated films, and a theatre that does show them, and has several currently playing, but has a ticket agent who for her own reasons of conscience refused to sell tickets to those films.

State officials seeking to have the California execution carried out didn't go to some doctor store that openly offers lethal injection services and then find that the doctors supplied to them, for their own personal reasons, wouldn't do what they'd been contracted out to do. The physicians are free agents, and they can choose to take an assignment or not. The pharmacists aren't in the same position. Wal-Mart doesn't have a policy against filling prescriptions for birth control, so customers visiting a Wal-Mart store in search of birth control have a reasonable expectation of being able to obtain it. Individual employees have no business derailing this transaction. That would be an awful lot of power to place in their hands. If the requirements of the job are at odds with their personal beliefs, then they ought to find a job that doesn't require them to subordinate their conscience. An Orthodox Jew won't take a job that requires working on the Sabbath. A vegetarian who believes "meat is murder" shouldn't apply for employment as a server at a steak restaurant, nor should the restaurant have to hire her if, perversely, she does.

Another difference worth noting is that a woman seeking a morning-after pill is operating within narrow time constraints and under duress. The state of California can hardly argue that it desperately needs to put a convict to death, or that it needs to do so now.

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Saturday, February 25, 2006


The Governor of Virginia can't set his own employment policies?

The Attorney General of Virginia, Robert O'Donnell, at the instigation of obsessed homophobe Delegate Bob Marshall, issued an opinion that the Governor has no right to issue an order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in state employment (Washington Blade Online, 24 February 2006) because the state constitution doesn't explicitly grant him the power to do so. Never mind that the Governor is the boss, and you'd think that, absent an explicit prohibition, the boss gets to make the rules. Anyway, Governor Mark Warner issued just such an order shortly before he left office (I'm of the opinion that he's a weasel*, and the fact that he waited till the eleventh hour to do this is one sign of that), and Governor Tim Kaine has affirmed it.

Article V, Section 10 of the Virginia Constitution states,

Except as may be otherwise provided in this Constitution, the Governor shall appoint each officer serving as the head of an administrative department or division of the executive branch of the government, subject to such confirmation as the General Assembly may prescribe. Each officer appointed by the Governor pursuant to this section shall have such professional qualifications as may be prescribed by law and shall serve at the pleasure of the Governor.

In other words, the Governor can fire any of his appointees for any reason. Can O'Donnell explain why such a reason might not be because an appointee isn't enforcing the Governor's directive not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation? The executive order can be read as amounting to, "Look, people, here's one of the rules I want you to follow with respect to your own staff if you don't want to find your butt out on the sidewalk." How does O'Donnell find this not to be within the scope of the Governor's power?

It doesn't really matter, because an opinion by the Attorney General doesn't amount to a hill of beans unless he chooses to go to court to have it enforced. To take it to court, he'd have to wait for a discrimination case to arise, and for the Governor to respond by quashing it, upon threat of the overseeing agency or department officer's job if necessary. At that point, a judge would probably find that the Governor's power to fire an officer, being prescribed as it is by the state constitution, superseded some bureaucrat's right to be unfair to a civil servant for unfair and arbitrary reasons. But in case you weren't aware of it, much of the legislative scurrying around in Richmond these days, particularly in regard to matters of sexual orientation, is vastly more characterized by ardent exhibitions of raw bigotry than by expressions of substance and thought.

* My first clue that Warner is a weasel came when Warner arrived at a barbecue I attended that was held by a GLBT political organization. This was a week after he'd announced his opposition to gay marriage, so some of us attending were already unimpressed with him. We ambushed him almost as soon as he arrived and challenged him on his statement. He went totally Quayle on us, completely astonished and stammering attempts at responses about practicalities, about the realities of political life in Virginia. When this appeared not to satisfy us, he whined through closed teeth, "Jeez guys, my sister's a lesbian!" We were so stunned by this. What was his point? At first it wasn't clear why he would be telling us that at all. Then it occurred to us that what he meant to say was, "Hey, don't you understand that I'm really on your side?" But what I got out of it was that he was such a weasel, even his own sibling's homosexuality wasn't enough impetus to stand up for what's fair and right. Yet that didn't stop him from invoking her as a shield. Unfortunately, by the time I'd thought this through and was going to call him on it, he'd slipped away, presumably to glad-hand with some of the less confrontational attendees.

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Why is the BlackBerry so damn important?

Having just used the looming demise of the BlackBerry as my lead-in for an article on patent practices, I remembered that I've been wondering why the BlackBerry is the focus of so much concern anyway. Aren't there plenty of software services that will connect mobile device users to their Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes accounts, without needing to create a relay account as BlackBerry users have to do? I'm not making a judgment here—I honestly don't know whether BlackBerry is necessarily superior to all of the other available e-mail apronstring applications. What can you all tell me about this?

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Patenting the obvious and tormenting the techoisie

Commenting on the imminent injunction against RIM's BlackBerry communication service, which is terrifying remote handheld wireless messaging addicts everywhere, Rob Pegoraro suggests one way to stanch the patent enforcement mania that these days is stifling rather than furthering technological innovation:

The patent office would apply a higher standard of "non-obviousness" -- the idea that a patent shouldn't reward "inventions" any competent individual could have thought up. ("BlackBerry Lawsuit is Patently Absurd", The Washington Post, 25 February 2006, page D1.)

Pegoraro says "higher" standard because US patent law already holds non-obviousness to be a criterion for deeming someone's effort an "invention." I've thought all along, though, that it should be more obvious what "obvious" is. For example, years ago managed to patent it's "1-Click" shopping feature, whereby a shopper can skip the usual lengthy shopping-cart-and-checkout procedure by registering once and provide all his purchasing credentials (name, address, credit card information) in advance. Later, when viewing an item for sale on the site, the shopper can use a "1-Click" button to have the item purchased and shipped with no further typing or mousing. Then Amazon tried to enforce this patent via a lawsuit. By what reason did the patent office issue this protection? The 1-Click feature was no invention. As with any on-line feature, it consists of two components: the model and its implementation.

The model is: a customer goes to a store in his small hometown. He's been there hundreds of times. The storekeeper knows him and keeps his address, phone number, and outstanding account in a ledger. The customer picks a few items off the shelf and brings them to the cash register. The storekeeper computes the total. The customer says, "Put it on my account." The storekeeper says, "OK." The customer leaves, and eventually receives a bill or trues up on a later visit to the store.

In other words, the model is old hat. It's numbingly obvious that it would be great to get a shopper out of the store with a minimum of hassle to the shopper.

As for the implementation, imagine asking a programmer to write a program to print out the prime numbers from 1 to 1000. Any programmer who knows what a prime number is can do that. Let's go up a few levels of complexity and ask a programmer to write a routine for a shopping web site that will store a customer's pertinent data so that later when he clicks a single button next to a view of a particular product, the purchase will be processed and the item will be shipped automatically. I'll tell you: any programmer who knows one or more of the technologies used for that kind of processing in this day and age (.NET, BizTalk, and SQL Server; enterprise JavaBeans and Oracle; etc.) can write a program that will do that, without any kind of true innovation being involved. I mean, there might be a couple of stumpers along the way, and the programmer who solves them might feel mighty proud of himself—but thousands of other programmers would encounter exactly the same obstacles and would just as deftly surmount them.

Solving problems is the nature of programming. Creativity and insight might be required. But in the end, it's a largely mechanical process, and most of it really just can't be classified as "invention." Amazon's argument in defense of its patent (I know, I wrote to them questioning them about it years ago) is the amount of time, effort, and expense that they put it into it. That's irrelevant. It takes a lot of time, effort, and expense to put up an office building, but that doesn't make every office building a patentable invention. The folks at the USPTO need to be less impressed by the obvious than they are now.

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Friday, February 24, 2006


Outsourcing our national security: Kennedy is shocked by old news

Posturing yesterday over the administration's approval of a deal transferring management of six major US ports to a Dubai-based company, Senator Edward Kennedy condemned the White House for "outsourcing our national security." ("Ports and a Storm," Dana Milbank, The Washington Post, 24 February 2006.)

I'm not sure I disagree with Kennedy, though I was somewhat persuaded by a Post editorial, "Port Security Humbug," on the subject on 22 February. But this is a case of outrage over old news. For example, while this may not be the case at the State Department or the Pentagon, security at every Federal agency office I've visited in recent years has been exercised by officers bearing shoulder patches from private contracting operations.

A few weeks ago I was asked to be interviewed by a Federal security investigator in connection with a clearance being sought for an associate of mine. I assumed the investigator was a Federal employee, and was a bit startled to learn that he was a contractor. I wondered, without reaching any conclusion, whether it was a good idea for the government to rely on the private sector to determine who's safe and who isn't. I also question the wisdom of allowing a private concern to have access to the kind of information about potential Federal employees and contractors alike that comes into their possession in the course of these investigations.

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Monday, February 20, 2006


Are studies on kids and TV as sloppy as Austan Goolsbee thinks?

Something's missing from the analysis in the Slate article The Benefits of Bozo - Proof that TV doesn't harm kids by Austan Goolsbee. Citing the evidence over the decades that TV is no good for children, Goolsbee says,

Most studies of the impact of television, however, are seriously flawed. They compare kids who watch TV and kids who don't, when kids in those two groups live in very different environments. Kids who watch no TV, or only a small amount of educational programming, as a group are from much wealthier families than those who watch hours and hours.

Scientific researchers are typically savvy about things like controlling for extrinsic variables. What that would mean in the case of monitoring children's TV viewing habits is that the tykes would be divided into groups according to, say, household income. Non-TV watchers within each group would be compared with mild and heavy TV watchers in the same group. At least, that should be obvious to any scientist.

This makes me wonder whether it has occurred to Goolsbee that the authors of all these studies might have accounted for family economic factors in releasing their findings. Another possibility is that the studies really were sloppy. But if that's so, and Goolsbee knows it, that would be noteworthy, eyebrow-raising news, and he should have mentioned it, rather than leading the reader to believe that he was casting unfounded aspersions.

Saturday, February 18, 2006


Google China allows a little subversiveness

My curiosity stirred by the controversy over the willingness of search engine provider Google to filter results on its Chinese site to satisfy Beijing's repressive interests, I ran a search for "tiananmen massacre" on Google's main, French, Japanese, and Russian sites as well as its Chinese one. The results:

Google France90,800
Google Japan90,800
Google Russia90,700
Google China272

I was expecting 0 in the last row. I was wrong, so I guess freedom rings in China after all!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


Virginia Senate votes for tobacco ban; what of right to choose?

That was unexpected: the Virginia Senate voted yesterday to ban smoking in restaurants and most other public places (The Washington Post). The Post indicated that passage in the House of Delegates was much less likely.

The three basic arguments against imposing smoking bans are:

  1. Smokers will stay away or leave sooner, reducing revenue.
  2. Smoking is a legal activity, so banning people from engaging in it is unreasonable.
  3. It's an infringement on the rights of business owners, employees, and customers to make their own choices.

I have some sympathy for the first argument. The impact of legislation on business profits is a legitimate consideration to be weighed against the other ramifications. In this case, it's my understanding, and the Post concurs, that studies are finding no substantive detriment to profits after all. After all, many non-smokers avoid bars and other establishments, or spend less time in them than they otherwise might, precisely because of the noxious fumes. Many of these people find themselves more inclined to patronize these businesses and to stay longer once the smoke has disappeared. I don't know how thorough or reliable the studies to date have been, but business owners who contest proposed bans out of fear of financial harm don't seem to appreciate the possibility that they are belaboring a moot point, against their own interests.

The other two arguments were voiced by Senator Charles R. Hawkins (R-Pittsylvania), who represents tobacco growers in the state:

We're talking about a legal product that's licensed and sold in Virginia—that's taxed and taxed and taxed. Now we're saying we know better than people who operate their own businesses what they can do.

Cars, of course, are legal products, taxed and taxed and taxed, but you aren't allowed to use one to tear through your neighbor's front yard or crash through his plate glass door. The legality of a product doesn't confer unimpeded freedom to use it as one may wish.

As for the right of choice—the right of owners to choose the environment they want to provide, the right of employees to decide whether they want to work in a particular establishment, and the right of customers to patronize a business or not—I have some sympathy, but not enough, because the new driving force behind smoking bans is the realization that it is a public health issue, not just a nuisance. We could trash the health code and let the customers decide whether to eat in a restaurant with a dead water heater that holds egg salad and raw shrimp unrefrigerated for hours in porous containers and allows vermin to proliferate in the kitchen. We could let banquet halls pack three times as many people into an enclosed space with a single exit than could possibly escape safely in case of a fire. How many of those who oppose a smoking ban on the grounds of choice would like to see these other forms of regulation go away?

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Saturday, February 11, 2006


Bumper stickers we'd like to see

The Bush Administration: making America secure by alienating our friends and galvanizing our enemies.
If our government tramples on civil rights, the terrorists will have won.

Thursday, February 09, 2006


Evangelical Christianity and the captive audience

Last summer Americans United for Separation of Church and State investigated reports of intimidation and unwelcome proselytizing of non-Christian cadets at the US Air Force Academy by evangelical students, faculty, and chaplains. Responding to protests, the Air Force issued guidelines placing restrictions on these acts. Now AU reports that a replacement set of guidelines cuts back on the earlier protections, and moreover speaks in terms of protecting the religious rights of the chaplains. Essentially the chaplains are claiming the right to proselytize the students at their institution as a matter of religious freedom—as though their right to harass others supersedes the religious rights of the students to be left alone.

Unfortunately, this is typical of what's going on in many sectors of our society. Evangelical Christian organizations are fighting to have prayer led in public schools. The federal government is funding faith-based organizations in the name of social service, and leaving those organizations free not only to witness to those they help but to make aid contingent on their receptiveness to the message. Prisoners in some correctional facilities are being required to attend openly Bible-based rehabilitation programs.

Do you see the strategy? The common elements are twofold: a captive audience (students, those in need, prisoners) and authority figures intent on making them or keeping them Christian whether they (or their parents) like it or not. The faithmongers act as if the people in their care or charge are there to serve their purposes rather than the reverse. It's nefarious, and we need to put a lid on it.

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I'll give Abramoff's daughter something to cry about!

Speaking after accepting a Golden Globe award for his role in Syriana a couple of weeks ago, George Clooney made a crude observation about lobbyist/convict Jack Abramoff's name. Abramoff's father reacted by excoriating Clooney in a letter to the Palm Springs Desert Sun, outraged in part because the lobbyist's daughter had been watching the Golden Globes and had burst into tears upon hearing her father lambasted.

You know what should really make Abramoff's daughter cry? The fact that her Orthodox Jewish father worked very, very hard to advance the political fortunes of congressmen who are working very, very hard to build a sort of a Christian theocracy in the United States—Jews (and other non-Christians) be damned.

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006


Bias protection non sequiturs

While the Virginia House of Delegates has spent the past couple of years maniacally and redundantly legislating their contempt for gay people, the Senate has on occasion drawn a line. That's why, when I read the other day that the Senate was going to consider a bill to prohibit anti-gay discrimination in state and local government employment, I thought there was a chance that it might get somewhere.

I was wrong. A Senate committee killed the bill today ( by a vote of 8–6. But never mind that. I want to draw your attention to two classic examples of non sequitur uttered by opponents of the bill.

Jack Knapp of the Virginia Assembly of Independent Baptists said, "We feel the activity is against the teaching of word of God, and that settles it for us." How does he get from that belief to wanting to preserve the right of government managers to discriminate against gay civil servants? According to almost any Christian I've ever heard discuss the subject, everyone is a sinner. Does Mr. Knapp think that no one is worthy of employment?

As reported in the Washington Post on Monday, Victoria Cobb of the Family Foundation in Richmond declared that "this is another legislative attempt to force people to believe that homosexuality is as immutable as the color of a person's skin." Although I could easily wrap a whole discussion around her assumption that homosexuality can be changed ("[f]ormer homosexuals would state they made a choice to enter and to leave this lifestyle"), that's not the part I'm interested in at the moment. The only way to make sense of Ms. Cobb's remark is to see behind it a premise that anti-bias laws should only protect personal characteristics that can't be changed. That premise leads to a couple of unsettling corollaries.

  1. Being Christian is a mutable characteristic. People come into and leave Christianity all the time. Can we expect Ms. Cobb to campaign for the repeal of laws protecting Christians against bias?

  2. Ms. Cobb's premise holds troubling implications about why we prohibit bias. I've always believed that it's wrong to discriminate against whole classes of people because (a) it's unethical, unfair, (b) it's arrogant and mean-spirited, and (c) there's no sense to it: people should be evaluated on their individual merits, not as part of a group. Ms. Cobb seems to feel that nondiscrimination laws people who are different "because they can't help it," so to speak. Since, in her mind, gay people can help it, they merit no protection.

    Well, imagine someone arguing, "Gay people have certain inferior characteristics, and since those people can choose not to be gay, we should be free to discriminate against them. Black people also have certain inferior characteristics, but they can't help it, poor things, so it would be wrong to hold it against them, and we should protect them from bias." Does that sound convincing to you?

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